Roberto Lovato discusses role of the poet-warrior and unforgetting memories for justice in book talk

By Erica Quinones

News Editor

The Goldstein Program in Public Affairs and the Rose O’Neill Literary House hosted a virtual book discussion with author Roberto Lovato on Oct. 7, celebrating Latinx History month and his memoir, “Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas.” 

Lovato is the son of El Salvadoran immigrants in California, growing up to become an educator, journalist, and writer. He is the co-founder of #DignidadLiteraria, which advocates for equity and literary justice for Latinx authors in the United States, and is a recipient of a reporting grant from the Pulitzer Center, according to his website.

“Unforgetting” is his most recent work, published in September by HarperCollins. 

The memoir explores Lovato’s family history and its generational trauma by jumping through time and space to draw connections between the United States in 2015, Lovato’s adolescence as a gang member in California, his time as a Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front guerilla fighter in El Salvador, his career as a journalist, and 1930s El Salvador when his father witnessed the La Matanza, an uprising during which tens of thousands of indigenous peoples were killed in a span of months.

“[‘Unforgetting’] took me…a lifetime to tell,” Lovato said. “This is as much a coming-out story for me as much as it is a story of violence, gangs, revolutionary action, and the spirit that overcomes that.”

As part of HarperCollins’s distributions, according to Lovato, “‘Unforgetting’ is the first nonfiction book written by and about Salvadorans and Central Americans that has been published by one of the big five publishers.” 

“This put a great responsibility on me,” Lovato said. “I thought I might be able to penetrate the silence that’s been imposed upon Salvadorans and Central Americans with respect to our own story.”

In being this voice, Lovato said that he worked to recontextualize the images of Salvadorans beyond those of violence and pain to show that “love is also the given of the place” — referencing Joan Didion’s claim that “terror is the given of the place” in her book, “Salvador.”

Lovato said that undertaking this project was not only an act of personal remembering but of political remembering as the memoir is an act of memoria histórica, “the collective work of recuperating memory in pursuit of justice, excavating memories that afflict the powerful and make them uncomfortable.”

This usage of writing as a form of social justice falls into what Lovato called the “poet-warrior” tradition, “where the artificial distinction between the poetic and the political doesn’t exist.”

In retelling his story, which is both Salvadoran and American, Lovato uncovers political memories of both the United States and El Salvador, such as the Obama Administration’s family detainment policies, to challenge the structures and stereotypes in place today.

“We will not get the better world that awaits us beyond [President] Donald Trump or [former Vice President] Joe Biden unless we go and do the work of unforgetting the things that have been left in the collective memory,” Lovato said.

Lovato begins the task of unforgetting in his memoir through three metaphors: forensics, sewing, and writing.

Through forensics, Lovato said he pieces “together the bones and fragments of our history, our memory.”

Sewing not only stitches together the pieces of memory, but the metaphor connects Lovato’s writing to the history of his grandmother who would “sew together the spare pieces of cloth to create dresses for prostitutes who had been dehumanized, some of whom had been indigenous right after La Matanza.”

The final metaphor, writing, “is itself a sticking together of the fragments of memories,” according to Lovato.

By connecting these memories together based on themes instead of chronology, Lovato returns to the idea of memoria histórica, not only drawing connections between these histories but doing so to uplift and humanize oppressed peoples.

According to Lovato, this activist form of writing is a necessity to combat the challenges of a complex and crisis-ridden future.

“I think we need [the poet-warrior tradition] to face the challenges of our time, and I’m not just talking about Donald Trump, or the decline of the economy, or the rise of neo-fascism in the United States and worldwide, or even the betrayals of the Democratic party…we have the fight of our lives waiting for us — climate change,” Lovato said. 

Thus, Lovato said he wants “Unforgetting” to be a model for future poet-warriors who will combat those future challenges.

Featured Photo caption: Professor of Political Science and International Studies Dr. Christine Wade (right) interviewed author Roberto Lovato (left) at Wednesday’s book discussion, followed by a moderated question and answer section. Photo by Mark Cooley.

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